Paul Bongiorno
‘Just so nasty and dirty and people hate it’

Scott Morrison has much more to fear from the prospect of a hung parliament than Anthony Albanese. That’s because he is so much further away from the agendas being run by the slew of independents who have a real chance of being elected.

At the end of week two of the campaign we are confronting the prospect of neither major party being able to govern in their own right, which says everything about how underwhelming voters see the choice on offer. For that, Scott Morrison and Anthony Albanese have only themselves to blame.

Morrison has given new meaning to the old standby of a prime minister in trouble: he’s the devil you know and it’s better to stick with him than the unknown alternatives, whether they be Anthony Albanese or the climate- and integrity-focused independents causing grief in at least six Liberal seats.

If these independents manage to take two or three seats from the Liberals, then Labor would be given an enormous leg-up. And it may well need it. Labor has seen its two-party-preferred lead cut dramatically in the four opinion polls published this week. The average has dropped from an eight-point margin to 5.6.

Consoling the Labor campaign is the thought most of its lost primary support went to the Greens or other minor parties. Explaining the figures, one Labor source said: “It could mean that voters are sure of one thing, they don’t want a return of the Morrison government.”

There is further evidence voters aren’t exactly thrilled by the major parties. Both leaders are in negative approval territory. There has been a slight improvement for Morrison but Anthony Albanese has plummeted in all the polls. In Newspoll he dropped 11 points to be 14 in the negative compared with Morrison’s minus nine. The primary vote of both major parties is in the mid-30s, fuelling speculation they could be struggling to achieve a majority in their own right.

The possibility of a Labor–Greens government is horrible enough for Morrison but no less scary for him is the prospect of having to deal with a crossbench that already skews green and looks like going even further in that direction. On Tuesday he warned that a vote for the “teal independents” was “a vote for uncertainty, and instability in incredibly uncertain times”. He said it was “the Forrest Gump principle: you never know what you’re going to get”.

Except he knows what he’s going to get. There will be a demand for an anti-corruption commission with teeth and a need to take actual action on climate change. And that would entail a curb on the favoured treatment of fossil fuels.

The nightmare for Morrison is the fact that a minority government would mean significant action on climate change, as happened the last time Labor was in a hung parliament. The government formed after the 2010 election resulted in real cuts to Australia’s emissions – for which this government now shamelessly claims credit.

Of course, Australia has been frequently run by a minority government, in that the Coalition exists because neither the Liberals nor the Nationals have the numbers for a majority in their own right. The price for that coalition is never made public – the coalition agreement is secret (mostly) men’s business. We do know that the coal champions in the Nationals have been a driving force in the climate wars of the past decade and more, and to stay in power Morrison would have to play off competing demands. If that negotiation extended to the crossbench he would no longer be able to leave it to unproved technology to do the heavy lifting of emissions reduction some time closer to 2050.

The independent Allegra Spender, running in Wentworth, is not alone in calling for a 60 per cent cut in emissions by 2030. She and the other like-minded independents take seriously the warnings of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Albanese, like Morrison, has ruled out doing deals with the crossbench but just exactly what that means is hard to fathom. Both leaders would need assurances on confidence and probably supply. Earlier, Albanese defined his position as not entering into a formal agreement with the Greens or the independents. But Warringah independent Zali Steggall says the Labor leader – or Morrison, for that matter – shouldn’t expect her to give a blanket agreement on supply if that supply means things such as subsidies for gas projects or new coalmines.

Steggall is lukewarm at best on Albanese. She says he’s had three years to tell us what he is about and hasn’t impressed her very much. But one thing is clear: what Albanese has going for him is that he is not Scott Morrison.

Steggall clearly believes Morrison is not fit to lead the nation. In a hard-hitting interview on RN Breakfast she blasted him for his captain’s pick in her seat, anti-trans extremist Katherine Deves. Steggall said, “When it comes to the core of Scott Morrison’s character he will weaponise anything for what he perceives as his benefit, no matter the cost to vulnerable communities.”

Steggall said, “That kind of politics is just so nasty and dirty and people hate it.” It explains why “there are so many independents capturing the enthusiasm of our communities”. Steggall believes Morrison has completely misjudged her electorate if he thinks the preselection of Deves, who is virtually an unknown to the local Liberals and who holds clearly hateful views, will attract votes.

Deves herself has had to go into hiding, complaining to supporters she was withstanding “savage attacks”. Midweek – with the stubborn support of the prime minister, who said “I am not going to allow her to be silenced” – she was standing firm. She assured Liberals on the federal electorate council mailing list she was “not going anywhere”.

All of that seems fine by the PM. Astonishingly he has personally picked a candidate who is too afraid to campaign and spends a lot of time avoiding the media. On Tuesday night Deves cancelled her attendance at a meet-the-candidates event at Manly Yacht Club. She is not a strong prospect or a good campaigner and it is pretty clear she wasn’t chosen by Morrison because she could win the electorate for the Liberals. More likely, she was chosen because her views make her a useful pawn in his culture wars.

Morrison and Deves are employing disgraceful tactics straight out of the American Republican Party’s playbook. They create false images of transwomen endangering girls in sporting contests. This notion is completely rejected by Steggall, a former Olympian, who says there is already legislation in place to deal with these issues and that sporting bodies have their own protocols. She says we are talking about “a tiny but at-risk minority anyway”.

Albanese, who tested positive to Covid-19 on Thursday night, and must isolate at home for seven days, has so far avoided being sucked into what is an obvious attempt to wedge him. Morrison would be hoping the Labor leader would join the “pile-on” and offend particularly conservative ethnic communities in Western Sydney and elsewhere. Albanese, like Steggall, says the issue is covered in the Sex Discrimination Act and his personal view is “girls should be able to play sport against girls and boys against boys”. He was deliberate in his formulation not to draw a distinction between trans girls and cis girls – they were just girls.

Morrison’s favourite outlet, The Australian, reports “a senior government source” as saying many voters would agree with Morrison on the issue. “It is a legitimate topic of conversation that would have heads nodding around the kitchen table,” the source said.

That’s a rosy view of an ugly wedge. Senior Liberals in New South Wales fear it will lose votes for the party in seats such as North Sydney and Wentworth. In an extraordinary intervention, state treasurer and moderate faction leader Matt Kean said Deves had no place in the party and called for her disendorsement. This call was echoed by state member Felicity Wilson, whose seat is within Warringah.

Adding credibility to Albanese’s claim that the issue was “more about chaos in the Liberal Party” is the split it caused along factional lines. Morrison has support from other warriors from the right – Tony Abbott and John Howard – but someone in his office had to leak private texts to The Australian to prove he had the support of Dominic Perrottet. The NSW premier, also a conservative, tried to calm down angry colleagues by telling them he was not responsible for the leak.

When Kean said he did not believe Deves “was fit for office” and that she was “not aligned with the values of the Liberal Party” he was laying down markers for where he and the moderates part company with Morrison. Kean condemned many of Deves’ retrieved social media posts as “outright bigotry”. He said on ABC Radio: “We live in a cosmopolitan, multicultural society where people are free to be themselves. And that’s a fundamental tenet of liberalism.”

Steggall thinks it is also fundamental to decency and is yet another reason she could have difficulty supporting a Liberal minority government led by Scott Morrison.


This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 23, 2022 as "‘Nasty and dirty and people hate it’".

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